When I was a kid, I hated taking naps during the day because I was afraid I’d miss something. I can only imagine how I’d feel if I were German and slept through the fall of the Berlin Wall.
That’s what Christiane Kerner does in “Good Bye Lenin!,” an appealing farce that has the curious distinction of being enacted by characters who are not farcical at all, but rather fully developed.
The year is 1989 and Christiane (Kathrin Sass) is the East German mother of two grown children, Alex (Daniel Bruhl) and Ariane (Maria Simon). The three have grown especially close since Dad left them in 1978, apparently because he found a new love in the West. Their life behind the Iron Curtain pleases Christiane well enough, but Alex has ideas, as do most young men his age. The last thing his mother sees before she collapses into a coma is Alex being beaten by riot police.
When she awakens eight months later, the Wall is down, Germany is reunified, and the Iron Curtain is now an enormous Coca-Cola banner. Ariane works at Burger King, and Alex has a job installing cable TV.
Mom’s doctor tells Alex and Ariane that any additional shock or excitement could cause her heart to fail again, this time fatally. Alex figures there’s nothing more shocking or exciting than the fall of the Berlin Wall and all the changes that came with it; hence, he decides it is necessary to hide these facts from Mom.
And the games begin. The family’s apartment, recently festooned with Western posters, merchandise and memorabilia, is re-dulled into the blandness Mom remembers. They make certain the window from her bedroom (where she will be confined for a while, luckily) does not have a view of anything overtly capitalistic. And when she sees oddities anyway — like a huge new Coca-Cola banner being unfurled across the street — Alex uses his connections at the local cable channel to produce fake newscasts to explain them away. (Surreptitious use of a VCR is involved here; somehow Mom doesn’t notice the lack of commercials or the lousy VHS picture.)
The fabrications become more and more elaborate, of course, and eventually spiral so far out of control that Ariane refuses to play along anymore, though she doesn’t spill the beans, either. What neither of them wants to accept is that either they will eventually have to tell Mom about their lie, which might be even more shocking to her than if they’d let her find out about the Reunification in the first place; or that they will have to keep it up until she dies, which may be sooner than later. Alex has come up with a solution that is only temporary. The charade can’t last forever, can it?
Director Wolfgang Becker, who co-wrote the film with Bernd Lichtenberg, can claim the film’s depth as its greatest achievement. He has taken an absurd situation, a silly premise, and added weight to the humor. Cold War-era East Germany strikes no outsider as a good place to live, but the people who grew up and lived there must have had a certain fondness for it. It is possible to feel patriotism even for a place like East Germany, which Becker demonstrates subtly as Alex notices one thing after another about his life that has gone downhill since the Wall came down. All countries, no matter how backward or oppressive they may seem to the rest of the world, are made up of PEOPLE, after all, and people usually find a way to thrive. When Alex convinces his mother that the world never changed, he’s at least partially voicing his own wish that it never had.
B+ (2 hrs.; German with subtitles; )